One of the most important parts of choosing an Internet plan is understanding connection speeds and how they relate to your experience. Think of your connection options as different pipes that feed into your home.
The wider the pipe, the more bandwidth you can consume at a single time. If you use the Internet for high-bandwidth applications, like video streaming or if you have multiple Internet-connected devices in your home, you'll need a plan with more bandwidth.
Unfortunately, the average Internet speed in the United States was only 5.3 megabits per second as of 2011, which isn't setting any records on the international stage. However, depending on where you live, you can usually get faster Internet -- if you need it, that is.
Here's what you need to know when choosing a connection plan from your cable, satellite, or DSL provider.
Getting the basics
If you don't use the Internet for anything other than email and light Web browsing, you don't need an especially fast connection. Any broadband connection will provide you with the constant connection you need to quickly get work done and get back to your busy life.
Many cable Internet plans start around 3 Mbps download speeds, but if you only have access to DSL, you can probably get by with 1-2 Mbps. You'll save a tremendous amount of money by opting for a relatively slow plan, and you can always upgrade if necessary.
Streaming video buffs
Services like Netflix use advanced compression techniques to keep video sizes down, but videos still take up an enormous amount of bandwidth. If you live alone or if the people in your household rarely stream more than one video at a time, a 5-8 Mbps connection plan should handle streaming at decent quality.
However, you should opt for a plan with 20 Mbps or higher if you have several computers in your house or if you stream HD video.
Gamers and other power users
Gaming also requires a lot of bandwidth, but you'll need fast ping times more than anything else. If you can send and receive a signal very quickly, you won't drop out of games or experience serious lag. Ask a few local Internet providers about their options and try to limit other draws on your connection while you're gaming. Once again, the number of computers in your house will make a difference in choosing your connection plan. If you live alone, 6-10 Mbps download plans with at least 1 Mbps upload speed should work well.
Note that most Internet service providers promote their download speeds, not their upload speeds. Download speeds limit your ability to get information from the Internet, while upload speeds limit your ability to send information. If you upload videos, music, or anything else, make sure to pay attention to your upload speeds.
Finally, don't mistake megabits per second (Mbps) for megabytes (MBps) per second. Most Internet users have a rough idea of how large a megabyte is, but a megabit isn't the same thing -- it's one-eighth the size. Therefore, an 8 Mbps connection would provide up to 1 MBps download speeds. When you know what you're buying, it's much easier to make an intelligent decision about your Internet connection.